Tag Archives: cost

Should You Buy A Private Label Air Conditioning and Heating System?

If you are getting bids on having a new AC and heating system installed, you might be offered a private label system. Like other private label products you may be familiar with, instead of having the manufacturer’s name on the equipment, it is branded with the company that is selling and installing it.

The main reasons HVAC contractors will offer a private label system are straightforward:

  1. Because the quality of the installation matters considerably more than which brand of equipment is being installed,  independent HVAC contractors are now putting more emphasis on “selling themselves” rather than the brand of equipment.
  2. Customers are less likely to compare it to the equipment in competing bids
  3. Since there is less brand advertising and perhaps less markup between them and the factory, the contractor who installs the equipment likely has room to make more profit margin in their cost on the equipment than on branded units. Or they can lower the price to you and make the same profit as on branded units.
  4. You (or the next owner) are more likely to call them for maintenance, repairs or replacement.

HVAC Industry insiders often refer to the equipment as “boxes”

The inference here, of course, is that the ac and heating equipment, heat pumps, etc.  are a commodity. To the extent that they are made from mechanical parts built by factories (some of them the same ones…) from all over the world, I agree with this assessment.

In some of the industry forums, I often read about confusion over who currently makes the equipment for certain well-known HVAC brands vs. who used to make them or whose parts they used.  Brands and factories get relocated overseas, change ownership, or get split up to the point that some industry insiders are not sure who even currently owns some brands.

A private label air conditioner and heater system can be a good buy if:

  1. You are convinced that the company and their technicians who will install it offer an acceptable overall value. Among other things, this includes: accuracy in sizing the equipment and quality of its installation, efficiency, features, benefits, customer service and more.  You can read more about that here on how to buy.
  2. You get documentation on what company or companies the warranty is through, and are comfortable that they will be around for the life of the equipment, and will make good on any defects or mistakes.
  3. If a third party is involved in the warranty (someone other than the actual manufacturer, such as Goodman, or the local company who is installing the equipment, then read this blog post before buying.
  4. You get written verification that your private label equipment qualifies for federal or other rebates. Note: the model number on private label equipment is often the same as for other models made by the factory that builds it.

Let us know if you have any experiences in this area so others can learn.

Even the Best Air Conditioners Break Sometimes – And When They Do…

Most days of each month, I read an HVAC industry online news group. In those, I read that even the most established brands of AC and heating equipment sometimes have defects, recalls, service bulletins, and so on.  This is in spite of how well they are assembled at the factory or installed at your location.

Here’s our take on the situation:  when your system needs repair, which it likely will at some point, have yourself set to get it going again with minimal inconvenience, discomfort, and cost.  To prepare for the day when your system goes on the blink, below are a few practical questions to consider when you are deciding which local HVAC contractor to install it and brand or model of equipment to buy (in that order of importance).

– How long has the contractor been in business under the same name, location and ownership?

– What training, certification, and experience do their technicians have?

– What is the relationship of the contractor to the brand(s) of AC and heating equipment they sell: Owned by them?  Exclusive dealer?  Independent dealer?

– How many service trucks and technicians do they have?

– Does the local contractor have 24-7 service?

– Do they charge extra for service after hours, weekends or holidays?

– What is the parts and labor warranty from the manufacturer? From the installer?

– If you sign up for a yearly maintenance plan, do you get preferential appointment times, pricing, or both on repair work?

– Do they have a good rating with minimal unresolved issues at the Better Business Bureau – BBB?

– When you search online for their company name, are the online comments generally positive?

On this last point, online testimonials or rants, be aware of what we call the “wild west” effect. By that, we mean that, far too often, we see and hear about companies writing good stuff about themselves or even bad stuff about their competitors.  And some real customers who take the time to write are not always objective.

Not to worry. If you use most of the points above and ask your neighbors who they use, you’ll get a reliable composite of the companies you are considering.

Why Heating A/C and Plumbing Contractors Do Background Checks On Their Technicians

Recently, I had the chance to meet with a long-time veteran of the home heating, A/C and plumbing business in a large western U.S. city.  He said something I knew a little about, but had never heard stated so directly.  He said:

Heating, A/C and plumbing are some of the main vocational training programs that are taught in prisons. That’s one of the reasons our company does background checks and drug addiction screening on all our employees…”

After a prisoner has served his or her sentence, having a productive job can help keep them from returning to prison. This, of course, is a good thing for a civilized society.  At the same time, home or building owners need to know that a technician who will be working in or own their property is both competent in HVAC and trustworthy.

Screening and background checks on employees could prevent a person with violence, molestation, or similar baggage in their past or present (particulary offenses with a high rate of recidivism) from getting a job at your local heating and air conditioning company.

What you can do to find quality heating and A/C service companies

So, in addition to the quick tips you will see on the pages of our website, before you have a contractor repair or replace your heating and AC equipment, ask if and how they screen their employees for undesirable history.

Background checks, like other overhead costs of technical training and certification, bonding, and insurance, can translate into higher bids or costs than companies who do not cover these benefits or protection for their customers. Of course, cost can naturally be divided into initial cost and longer term or unforseen costs. Generally, service companies with good infrastructure have better procedures.  This usually means they are less likely to make mistakes. And if they do make an error or if a defect in equipment presents itself, they have the resources to make things right.

Compare Bids for a New Heating AC System AND Anticipate Contractor Add-On Costs

Comparing Equipment Features
Attempting to compare heating and AC brands, or shopping for features get the most attention from buyers. We wrote about this in last month’s blog and in other place.  We provide a free grid to compare new equipment cost at a glance. From your research or bids, you can fill in the blanks on this printable chart to cut through the “noise” and understand the equipment efficiency and other objective features. However, this equipment must be installed as a system in the structural environment of your home or building, which has variables. So, on to our main topic.

Preparing for What ELSE Might be Necessary to get a New HVAC System Installed
In situations where the new heating and cooling equipment is going into an existing structure (as contrasted with new construction) there are some major potential “gotchas” to prepare for.  I’ve experienced this personally, so hopefully you can benefit from my lessons, some of which were costly. Two good examples of this are electrical wiring and ductwork. They both have the potential to be significant “add ons” to the scope of the work in the project.

Electrical Wiring
If you are having central heating and AC installed into an existing structure for the first time, be sure to get info about wiring conditions.  This would be especially true for a older home or building with original wiring.  Essentially, you want to make sure that the wiring, connections, and circuit breakers, etc. can safely and efficiently handle the new load. If they cannot, you will experience circuit breakers tripping or perhaps much worse.  Because inadequate wiring will increase the cost of a job or might slow down the decision to buy a new system,  some equipment installers might be tempted to not bring it up at all. Or, they might focus the discussion on the new equipment first, get that signed, then bring up the wiring issue and cost.  This is also true for an older structure that already has central heat and air, but needs them replaced.

Ductwork
If your home or building already has ductwork, there are several parallels with electrical wiring to consider:

– The existing ductwork might be usable, OR it may need to replaced due to its structure, design or condition.

– Most potential issues can be seen ahead of time, but some could be discovered during installation of the new system.

– Project add-ons can be  awkward to negotiate or expensive to buy, because work has already begun.

The solution: Focus First on Getting High Quality Advice and Labor on the Installation
We rarely miss an opportunity to highlight the variable that matters most in heating and AC: the quality of the installation.  If you choose a dealer whose sales reps and technicians are trained, experienced and  ethical, dealing effectively with existing wiring or ductwork should be automatic. That way, you can be sure to get the right equipment for your situation and needs AND deal with potential variables in the original project scope.

If you and your contractor handle it well, getting a new system installed will be the start of a long-term relationship that includes preventative maintenance. There are also manufacturer and possibly installer warranties to consider, and those will be the topic of our next blog post.

If you find this useful, please share your thoughts and experiences with other reads. If not, let us know how we can improve.

Best Way To Compare New AC and Heating Systems Before Buying

This blog describes how to cut through the “clutter and noise”, and buy a new furnace and AC system wisely.   I first learned this way of thinking while working my way through college in a bicycle shop, and there are some useful, current parallels to the way HVAC equipment and systems are sold.

More Brands Than Factories
Working in the bike shop, I learned that there are a lot more bicycle brands than there are bicycle factories.  Same (or very similar) bicycles…different label, marketing and prices.  Bicycles have a frame onto which major and minor components, made by other manufacturers around the world, are added.  These are combined in a box at the bike frame factory, sold through distributors, and must be assembled by a trained mechanic at a shop to be warranted.

With air conditioners and furnaces, the frame is a box, usually made sheet metal. With a few exceptions, the main components, such as compressors, condensers, fans, coils, heat exchangers, come from factories around the world. As in the bicycle brand example, there are fewer AC and heating component factories than there are brands.  Parts do come in differing grades of quality and efficiency, and the cost (and sometimes the complexity) usually goes higher with the efficiency rating.

There are some generalities about HVAC equipment brands that may be worth knowing. However, before thinking about brand there are two more important aspects a buyer needs to focus on:

Needs Local Professional Assembly or Installation

For safety and efficiency, we mechanics often had to true the bike wheels, and adjust the gears & brakes.  Then we adjusted parts to the needs of the rider, and added accessories based on the conditions the rider would encounter.  If we goofed up, the bike would not ride efficiently or the rider could crash and get hurt.

With AC and heating equipment, the installation is a critical factor. Some types of mistakes are very difficult to correct.  First, the local company that installs your equipment should have helped you choose the size and efficiency specifications appropriate for your climate, envelope (the part of your house or building that interacts with the outside air), and budget. Next, the installers have to be skilled in plumbing, electrical, refrigeration and more to connect the wiring, piping and refrigerant to make the equipment run safely and efficiently. Also, if your existing ductwork is used, they must make sure it is in good condition and sealed.  Should the wrong size or type of equipment get installed into your home or building, it will be a major hassle making things right.

Assure Quality of Installation First, Then Compare Features For Cost
In summary, here are the action points to make a wise heating and AC system purchase. Each one has links for more details if you need them:

1- Choose a local service company with trained and experienced installers and technicians.  Go to this page to get more info on how to make a good choice.

2- Verify that you are getting the correct type and size of equipment for your climate, structure, and circumstances. More info here

3- Use our free cost comparison grid to compare the most important features.

4- After you have done this, you can see how brand fits into the picture.

If you find this useful, please comment so others can learn. If not, send a suggested topic and we’ll consider it.

Defective Drywall News Get More Involved – The Plot Thickens

In this post, we will follow up on our last blog entry about defective drywall in U.S. homes and reports of damage to inside components of AC and heating systems.

In case this topic is new for you, here’s a brief summary: Some types of drywall (aka sheetrock, gypsum wallboard, etc.) are being reported to emit hydrogen sulfide, which combines with moisture inside homes and building and damages copper in air-conditioning and heating  equipment, systems and wiring.  There have been complaints of other types of effects (to electronic equipment; and from humans) but our focus in on HVAC systems. This is a developing story that first aired earlier this year.  If estimates of the number of affected homes and the cost per home to fix the problem is accurate, we are puzzled as to why this is not getting more national mainstream media attention.

The plot seems to be thickening, because earlier reports mostly focused on drywall imported from China. However, now some recent reports are stating that sulphur gasses are being emitted from drywall from sources other than China.  While the reason(s) that the drywall is producing hydrogen sulphide is still being studied and debated, the effects to A-coils and other inside AC and heating equipment look like a big deal to us.  As is typically the case, determining who will eventually pay for the damage will probably drag on and on.  In the mean time, some unlucky homeowners are in a real fix.  Some say they can’t live in the house any longer, but and can’t sell it or rent it either.

Below , we are including links to the Consumer Products Safety Commission  CPSC, and also a report from the CBS news website on November 23.

Consumer Product Safety Commission CPSC Drywall Information Center Report

On the CPSC website, the agency states that it has received more than 2,000 reports from residents in 32 U.S. states and territories. Those complaints include health symptoms or the corrosion of certain metal components in homes, and are related to the presence of certain drywall produced in China.

CBS News Online Defective Drywall Story – November 23, 2009

This article from CBS News tell a similar story, and it involves laboratory testing for sulphur gases and countries of origin other than China.

In our opinion, it’s too early to know the scope of the potential damage.  If you would like to keep up with the story, you can bookmark us and can check back here.  Or if you want to receive alerts directly, check out Google Alerts and enter one of these terms: “drywall” or “defective drywall”, “drywall news”.  Then you’ll receive emails directly.

If your home’s AC and heating system has been affected, please share your experiences so others can learn.

Whole House Air Filters Remove Pollen, Second-Hand Smoke and More

In many parts of the country, fall is the time of year when ragweed and other pollen-producing plants go into high gear.  Individuals who suffer from allergies often benefit from better filtration of their indoor air.  In addition to filtering out plant pollen for allergy relief, the right system will also remove second hand smoke, odors, pet dander, dust and many other irritants.  Early fall, when the heat of summer subsides, also happens to be one of the two slower periods each year for most local AC and heating companies.  The convergence of these facts makes a good topic for our post today.

In contrast with portable or room air filters, a whole house air filtration system covers all rooms of your home and are integrated within your HVAC system.

Within your AC and heating system, the air filter element serves two main purposes:

1– Protect your AC and heating equipment from contamination and becoming clogged inside the system.  The air filter element must allow the air to flow through the equipment at the rate specified for that system. Of course, if the filter is not changed on schedule the clog will occur at the filter element itself.

2– Remove airborne particles, odors and other contaminates from the indoor breathing environment of your home or office.

There are many choices of whole house air filters available.  Just as in water filters, the overall objective is to remove the maximum amount and type of contaminates while avoiding undesirable growth of molds, etc. on the filter media.  Maintenance requirements, initial + operating costs, and other factors figure must also be included in this equation. For a more detailed description, go to our air filter page.

During autumn, your local AC and heating service companies are less busy.

For the homeowner, this means that now is a good time for you to call them for maintenance, repairs, or to get a quote on an air filter system.  They will be under less pressure (which is usually the case when it first gets hot or cold outside), plus many service companies offer off-season discounts, rebates, and other ways to save.

If you are about to get a new ac and heating system or make changes to your air handler or ductwork, you will want to consider the air filter options at the same time.  It costs less to add a whole house filter at these times, rather than as a stand-alone project later.  As is the case in the rest of air conditioning and heating, the quality of the installation often makes a bigger difference than the brand of equipment.  Of course, there are differences in air filter equipment.  However, you need to first screen for quality work from the company who will install and maintain it for you, because that is the most important variable. While on site, your local HVAC contractor can also help you select the equipment that will work best to meet your indoor air quality goals in the physical situation within your home or building.

If you have questions or comments on this topic, please send them to us so others can help you or benefit from your experience.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Don’t Forget The Ductwork When You Buy A New HVAC System

When comparing bids and price quotes for a new AC and heating system, an essential component often gets glossed over: the ductwork.  Because of rebates and tax credits, a lot of attention is placed on SEER, EER, energy efficiency ratings and other new equipment features. However, unless the ductwork is professionally sized, configured, and sealed with the newly installed equipment, even the most advanced new HVAC system will not cool or heat your home at optimum efficiency.

Ductwork may be difficult or inconvenient to get to
Another reason ductwork can get less attention than it deserves: it may be difficult to get to.  Ducts in two story houses can be encased between the floors.  More often, it is in the unconditioned attic where it is blazing hot and surrounded by itchy insulation and desiccated mouse droppings.  Of course, in a pier and beam house with vents in the floor, the ductwork can be located in the crawl space under the house with spiders, snakes and other biting/stinging varmints.

Ductwork is a variable
The vast majority of local heating and air conditioning companies strive to deliver quality work and above board cost proposals.  However, for the rare contractor that is more focused on winning the signed proposal than delivering quality, the existing ductwork represents one of the least tangible areas.  To them, it could represent a variable where advantage or shortcuts might be taken.  Any proposal for a new system should address the ductwork. This includes whether ductwork will be definitely replaced, if there are any variables or contingencies (if mold is found when removing old equipment, for example), and specific  costs for each scenario.

The whole house approach to HVAC

In summary, central heating and A/C equipment relies on the ductwork to deliver the conditioned air and not waste it. Be sure to take the whole system  — the air ducts, the ductwork and the envelope (the places where your house meets and interacts with the outside environment) –into account when you plan and budget improvements to your HVAC system.

Product Category Overview: Ductless Air-Conditioning, A/C and Heating Units

Ductless units go by a number of names, most of them referring to the lack of ductwork necessary for distribution of the warmed or cooled air. A few of the other names commonly used  are mini-split, mini-splits, and split-ductless.

Where Ductless A/C and Heating Can Be A Solution

These units typically work best in situations such as: room additions, garage enclosures, basement renovations, sunroom additions, workshops and garage apartments.  Primarily they are used in retrofits or replacement of small non-ducted indoor cooling and heating.  For smaller homes ductless can be a good choice for replacing space heaters and window units.  These can also be a solution where duct installation is either physically not possible, or not cost effective.  Finally, there are some indoor environments where ductwork needs to be avoided for health considerations, such as severe asthma cases or in hospitals.

A Brief History of Ductless HVAC Units
These clever units were developed in Japan, where the dense population and high energy costs called for features that window units or ducted systems did not provide.

Features and benefits

  • As the name indicates, there no duct work.  Since there is no ductwork, there is no loss of heating or cooling due to leaks in ductwork, or ducts being located in unconditioned space.  With these units,very high efficiency is available, up to 26 SEER.
  • The units tend to be quiet, because the compressor sits outside instead of closer to you, as in window units or other package units do.  Certain ductless models will qualify for 30% federal tax credit, up to $1,500, for 2009 and 2010 on parts and labor costs.   Be sure to get the qualifications of your unit in writing before purchasing.
  • Some models have up to four indoor air handling units connected to one outdoor unit. This means the one outdoor unit can handle up to four rooms or zones. This depends on how much heating or cooling the structure or each zone needs.  As is always the case in HVAC , the amount of insulation, the climate, and other conditions of the envelope (structure) affects the heating or cooling capacity required.
  • Since each zone gets a separate thermostat, this gives more flexibility on comfort and ways to save energy.
  • Some models offer features for added humidity control and air filtration.

Considering Buying A Ductless Unit Online?
On their website for the Mr. Slim ductless Mitsubishi states that they do not authorize or provide warranty for the online retail selling of its Mr. Slim air-conditioning and heat pumps. The company gives a number of reasons, with the upshot being you are much more likely to be satisfied with the performance if the unit is sized and installed by a professional HVAC technician.  This is consistent with all our research and feedback.  Unlike the older window units or portable models, although they have no ducts, they still require the running of lines for coolant, drainage, etc., and they have to be charged with refrigerant. While reading the latest on this topic, we did notice some Mistubushi mini-splits being sold online. If you are considering buying a unit online and having it installed for you by a licensed technician, you should ask for a copy of the warranty to be sent to you before purchasing. From what we have consistently read and heard, you will be better off going through a local HVAC service company you trust for everything.

Brands Of Ductless AC and Heating Units

If you want to compare features, below are some of the leading manufacturers and brands.
AmcorAire®
Comfort-Aire
Sanyo
Fredreich
Fujitsu
LG
Mitsubishi

Intital Cost vs. Lifetime Operating Costs

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ductless equipment costs more per unit of cooling: 30% more than a central split system and 50% more than a window unit.  Of course, the absence of ductwork and future costs related to it (periodic checking for leaks, cleaning, and eventual replacement) must be factored in. Also, ductless units are available in some of the highest efficiency ratings that can be purchased.  The savings in energy costs will offset the higher initial cost.  To determine the extent of that offset, ask your professional installer for an estimate of the monthly and total cost of ownership over the projected life of the unit.

If you have an experience or other info to share regarding ductless units, send it to us and we will post it, so that all our readers can benefit.

Deciding To Repair Or Replace Your A-C System When Money Is Tight

To stay current on trends, we monitor several air-conditioning and heating industry blogs and HVAC email lists.  In them we are reading that a lot of homeowners are asking their local service company to do just the bare minimum to keep their AC or heating system running.  In recent blogs, we have written on related topics, such as:

a- Initial installation cost may not be highest cost item of owning a heating and air conditioning system over its life. It could be electricity/fuel costs or even a combination of maintenance and repair costs. 
b- Alternative sources of financing, such as a local community-chartered credit union. In those, a person does not have to work at a job related to the credit union. Rather it is based on residency or some easy-to-meet requirement.
c- $1,500 Tax credits, manufacturer or utility rebates or financing for purchasing a new a/c and heating system.

Given the current squeeze on household budgets, the request to avoid a major purchase or to minimize cash outlay is certainly understandable.   Of course, if someone is requesting the minimum repair, chances are they are not calling for service until their system fails to cool or heat properly.  However, If the system is old enough that replacement parts can no longer be sourced, or if a major component such as a heat exchanger or AC compressor has failed, even the minimum repair estimate may large enough to cause a cost/benefits dilemma with your current system.

When facing a major repair or even a modest service work on an older heating and AC system (generally, 10 years is considered old, especially in regards to efficiency), we are listing: 

Seven Useful Questions For Repair Or Replacing Your A-C Heating System

1- How long do you plan to own your home or building?
2- How much have your repair bills averaged costing over the past 1-2 years?
3- Do you believe electricity and fuel costs will tend to go down, stay the same, or go up?
4- What other repairs might you be facing in the near future, other than the issue at hand right now?
5- How much would you save on your monthly utility bills in electricity and gas costs with the new system?
6- How much are the total rebates and tax credits available on a new system?
7- How many months will it take to pay back the cost of the new AC and heating system? After that initial payback period, how much will I get in return each month as a return on my investment?

If there is literally nowhere to turn for the funds to give you a choice, then you may only have to keep your cash outlay as low as possible. However, if you do have choices, making the decision to go with more efficient equipment could pay a monetary return of and on  your investment.  Your local HVAC service company should be able to answer questions 4, 5, 6, and 7.  With these, you should then be able to make a well informed decision.  We welcome your comments and experiences.